Monday, December 26, 2011


To shove the head of a King with a jab of the index finger is the prerogative of the Barber.

What dyo think, who are we quoting? Corrrecttt- none other than yours truly. Who else will think of such a stuppid thing? But just visualise. Who can knock about the head of Akbar the Great at will? Wonly his barber, I saaaayyy....!

Mohan Agashe was once called to the NIBM Pune by Prof. Ashish Saha to speak on the subject of ‘leadership in management’. We were supposed to prepare for a week’s course at Kelloggs’ ( at Chick-aago, as Kamat intoned) and the purpose of the grounding at NIBM was to ensure that we did not bring shame and indignity upon this Great Nation. Needless to say, NIBM failed miserably in their mission, and we proved ourselves to be no less stuppid than the Americans.

Wellllllll, Agashe had lamented on his credentials being not equal to the taks on hand, but Prof. Saha cheered him onnn saying that he wanted a cross-pollination of disciplines. We were then reminded of the thoughts that always flitted across our wee brain when we descended into the barber’s chair. That ‘decision-making’ occupies a very important place in the barber’s skill-set. We always admired the decision making capabilities of some of our barber friends.

To make a short story long, in the good old days in Delhi, the captive-, or rather the other way round -barber was supposed to be the repository of wisdom, for he was privy to a variety of views emanating from the Chair. He was a sort of clearing house of information disseminated by his clients, some of whose relatives were naturally occupying high places, being Delhites. It was in that August chair in 1947 that Dad learnt about the Nehru-Pamela affair. Clients were aghast to learn about these clay feet, but Kishan, the 4-Block, WEA barber had a different taike. It’s a matter to be proud about, he held. A Royal Lady, bhaiyyaaa... Now do you think Panditji should have an affair with his secretary??? Ha,ha,ha!!! A radio would always blare away in the saloon, playing old Hindi songs, with Kishan offering his Lala Amarnath comments on each song, explaining why Lata was no match for Suraiya or the other.

Ya! Back to decision-taking abilities.

The various operations in the saloon could be a haircut, dyeing or a shave or a massage? The staple is of course the haircut. While the lead time could be an hour, the haircut persayyyy is a fifteen to thirty minute affair, depending primarily upon the hair length, the texture, the curl level, the dense-ness, the desired style, and the final desired length of the hirsute appendages. As our barber friends have confided in us, around half of the clients of an established saloon are permanent, and the rest, floating. In the case of permanent clients, the difficulty occurs only on the first occasion, which should be obvious, for if the haircut is screwed on the first occasion, the client will never become permanent.

The first-timer or the stray client will mutter a terse ‘short’, ‘medium’ or ‘just trim’. Here comes the first decision then. What’s short? How short is short, and how short is long? The personality of the client also comes into play here. Normally the client will not pick up a panga with the barber. Just as he does not pick a panga with doc. Family doctors and family barbers. Hair will always grow and bounce back. Ghar ki kheti, as they say in cow-belt. Thus while the risks are limited, the fear in the barber’s mind is real and he is always on tenter-hooks. He could for instance, hurt the client and make a Paul Gauguin out of him. The client could be narcissistic, he could be finicky, or he could be indifferent to his looks, unless he is married. The former category will have a tendency to be monogamous, and will have a fixation with a particular artiste ‘populating’ the saloon. The corollary is that the barber as a tribe is friendly, so that any ire on part of the client does not carry.

As the hair-cut operation progresses, he anxiously looks at the client. Both the client and the barber have a continuous feed-back in the shape of the mirror, which is a boon, but could easily be a handicap. Monitoring is a heavy exercise in corporate management, and many a disaster could be camouflaged, but this negative benefit is absent here. Goldfish have no hiding place, as our friend Chase pointed out. Again some clients could be disinterested in the mirror’s feed-back, but the barber has to be on his toes, literally.

They say while driving, one carries out 32 operations simultaneously, so they say. The barber’s job is no less daunting.

Now, the spotlight is on the client again. He has always had a past and measures the barber against some acquired benchmark. The barber tries to anticipate things. Dedicated barbers seek directions, but mostly they will not, and that is the strength of the community- they plump for independent decision making. Too many directions could cause complications in the process which is after all to last a quarter hour, and the time of those who ‘stand and wait’ is also important.

Now comes the most difficult part. The barber tries to imagine what the cut looked like when the client had descended from the throne last. He has to decide what scissors to be used when, when to use the narrow end of the comb, whether and how many times the hair should be sprayed with the mist of water, whether to use the hair-mower. He will have to balance the hair mass on both sides of the head, so as to ensure symmetry. The beauty of the skill set of the barber is that the multi-dimensional riks matrix is handled end-to-end , from the beginning of the operation, to its conclusion, without a spill-over or a take-off phase , and seamlessly, and very, very fast.

The final product then has to agree with the self-image that looms in the mind of the client. The rear of the head is innocuous, and then savvy barber will always hold a mirror at the back of the client and coax out an approbation. But although the client can tell a good job from a bad one, esp. after he reaches home, he is neither concerned with, nor has an awareness of what the process is like. All that he is concerned is the fruit, and not the methodology of growing or rearing the fruit.

We are sure of one thing. They are great! It requires guts to be a barber. For many, the face is the fortune, and to take chances with the fortune of a stranger, who puts his fate (till the next haircut becomes due) squarely in another hand requires real strength of purpose and character. Any senior manager of Chabiwala Bank will definitely appreciate the man. Had the Bank been a saloon, the employee would have first ‘put up a note”, and waited for its disposal. Certainly a Committee or a ‘Working Group’ would have to be constituted.

Wooosh! Tall order. But relax, the barber has a good grounding in the craft. One would love to find out whether and how these skills brush off upon their day to day life.

The ‘last word’ goes to Sant Tukaram. “Tethe pahije jaatiche”. ‘Jaati’ here has nothing to do with casteism, but has a broad connotation. That’s the greatness of Tukaram. His caste was his handicap and perhaps the reason behind his sudden disappearance, but this word, in his shreemukh, appears ‘pure’ and ‘positive’ as opposed to ‘normative’. The Marathi part still remains to be explained, assuming that apart from Senior, Junior, Missus and Gopal some other mysterious person will read this. Tuka says, that for the job to be done perfectly, the person has to have it in his blood. Let us hasten to add, it’s not about birth in the barber caste, but of the dedication to the thing in your hands, however significant or insignificant. Sincerity will rub off on whatever profession you will follow.

Disclaimer: (i) Although the writer is not sexist, the female sex has been left out of the blog because he has never peeped into a ladies’ parlour, just as he never peered into a ladies loo.

(ii) For want of spontaneity elsewhere, the term ‘barber’ has been used by us.

Tailpiece: What else but the Russell’s Paradox? It changed the course of Mathematics: Kishan shaves each male in 4-block who does not shave himself. Does Kishan shave himself?

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Alexander Alan said...
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